For the gospel: Luke 16:1-13 (often known as “the Parable of the Unjust Steward”.)
How strange the story that Our Lord tells us in our gospel this morning! Consider what happens! We have a steward (or “manager” as some of the recent translations have it) who is accused of scattering his master’s goods. The Greek word that Luke has chosen—διαβάλλω—usually means “falsely accused” or “slandered,” so that is how we should take it. The steward has been acting honestly and efficiently enough, but he has been slandered, and his master believes the slanders and fires him.
“Stewards” in that society were frequently slaves, and maybe that is what we are to understand here. In which case, if the steward is found unsuitable for work, he will likely be sent to the mines—a common punishment for recalcitrant slaves, and one leading to a life that was nasty, brutish, and usually short, especially if you weren’t very good at it (as he obviously wouldn’t be – as he himself observes—“I cannot dig!”); or else, he might choose to run away and “beg”—a miserable fate, not to say risky, for runaway slaves, if caught, were often crucified. My own suspicion, however, is that in this particular instance we are to picture the steward as his master’s freedman. In which case, if he is fired and obliged to leave the household, his lot will be only marginally better than if he were a slave: for this is what sociologists call a “patronage” society, and in it he will be vulnerable, because he will have no patron. He will be poor without a protector. He will be what the middle ages came to call “a masterless man.”
The steward has, however, one last shot to fire. Falsely accused, he will revenge himself by doing exactly what he has been accused of doing, and scattering his master’s goods—and, incidentally, maybe make himself a few friends (even, possibly, find a new patron?) in the process (“they may receive me into their houses”). So, while he still, so to speak, has keys to the office and knows the passwords to the computer, and quite reckless of possible consequences, he contacts his master’s debtors, and allows them to re-write their IOUs, reducing their debts in some cases by a quarter, in some by as much as half. What happens next? A moment of exquisite irony! The master, who condemned the steward when he was falsely accused, and who has now really been robbed—applauds him for his wit!
This is a strange world. It appears, to tell the truth, to be a world without morals, where proper behaviour results in disaster, and daylight robbery results in approval. What is going on? To answer that, perhaps we should consider the situation in which Luke has set this parable. It actually the last of a group of four parables that stem from a single beginning: “Now the tax collectors and the publicans were all drawing near to Jesus to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” (15.1–2) In other words—bad people seemed to be getting the master’s approval! Does that remind us of anything in the story of the steward? Perhaps it does—but we must wait, for there is more. The first three parables in this collection, Luke says, are all addressed to those very persons who criticized Jesus for the company he kept. They are parables most Christians have come to know very well, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the parable that we call “the prodigal son”, although we might better call it, “the parable of the gracious father”—they are all stories of underserved grace.
But then we come to the fourth parable, the parable of the steward, with its world verging on moral chaos that we have just been considering. This parable, Luke tells us, is addressed to a group of folk who might well think themselves superior to those who criticized Jesus—a group who would naturally expect to have a corner in God’s blessings. It is addressed to Jesus’ disciples (16.1). So we must say that they—or, if we regard ourselves also as Jesus’ disciples, then we must say “we”—we, specifically, are the ones to whom the parable of the unjust steward is addressed. We are the ones whom our Lord insists on confronting with a world without morals, where proper behaviour results in disaster, and shameless theft results in approval. And that shocks us.
Why? What kind of world do we expect?
Do we think that because we are Christians we shall find a world where we shall always be approved for our well doing and condemned when we cheat? Perhaps we do. Sometimes I think it. I seemed at one point to be hearing a lot of sermons preached on the book of Job: a dangerous subject, and especially dangerous when we presume to compare ourselves to Job. The first part of the story of Job is the part we generally remember, and think we understand: Job has done well and Job has been hurt and Job is angry. And Job is, in a qualified way, approved for his honesty in expressing his anger. That is the part on which we can be tempted to preach. But the last word in Job’s dialogue is not with Job’s hurt nor with his anger nor with his demand for a business-like universe that will fit his expectations of justice—nor, certainly, is it with his comforters, who actually agree with him about the business-like universe. The last word is with Job’s being awestruck in the presence of God:
I had heard of you with my ears;
But now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
Comforted that I am dust.
The truth is, the universe as we experience it does not fit either Job’s or our notions of love and justice, and we had better admit it. Even if we have managed to avoid major misfortunes in our own lives, what shall we say of the Trail of Tears or the Holocaust or the helpless children in the Syrian civil war or any of the other horrors that mark our history and our world? How, indeed, shall we even meditate on a crucifix?
If you have raced with those on foot
and they have wearied you,
how will you compete with horses? (Jer. 12:5)
Or has our Christianity become merely a self-centred quest for our own self-fulfilment that can ignore the world’s pain so long as it is not our pain? Am I content with the notion of a God who finds me a parking place when I need one, but did nothing about Auschwitz?
The steward did well and was slandered. Then the steward cheated and his master applauded. Does that mean it is good to cheat? Of course not: and to make that clear Luke follows the parable with a set of sensible moral exhortations as pointed and plain as you could wish. Use wealth justly. Be faithful in little things. You cannot serve God and money. And so on (16.9–13). But Luke only does that after the parable has reminded us—in case we had forgotten—that we shall be very foolish indeed if we expect the universe to keep to those maxims.
But there is more to be said even than this. The plain fact is, we are all of us unjust stewards in our own ways, and no doubt shall continue to be. God defend me from a universe where I shall always be approved for my well doing and condemned when I cheat, for in such a universe, I am damned. If, at the last, we are to stand at all before our master, then far from affecting shock or displeasure, we had better recognize that we are actually going to need something like that awesome and surprising approval of which the parable of the unjust steward speaks; that awesome and surprising approval which cannot be accounted for on the basis of good deeds; that awesome and surprising approval, unbiased by our merit, which we call grace.
My favourite song by the group called Fisherman’s Friends is one that starts,
Come, all you no
you jokers and rogues
we’re on the road to nowhere,
let’s find out where it goes
It might be a ladder to the stars, who knows…
story of the steward does not conclude with the steward getting his by that
time perhaps deserved come-uppance, but with the master’s mirth. If there is
any truth in our Christian faith, then the end of our story is not, thank God,
our righteousness, and certainly not our suffering. It is all that is best and all that is worst
in the wit of rogues and the tears of saints, the martyrs’ passion and the
lovers’ hope, all transformed and redeemed by the wit and grace of God in Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.
 See Liddell and Scott, διαβάλλω, BDAG διαβάλλω. So Joseph Fitzmyer correctly says of 16.1, “The verb diaballein often carries the connotation of calumny, ‘to bring charges with hostile intent’ i.e. either falsely or slanderously.” Regarding our parable, however, he then continues that as the story develops, “the latter [i.e. the positive sense of diaballein] is meant”—but gives no reason for this assertion. Other commentators that I have checked do not even discuss the question, simply assuming that the accusations against the steward are valid (e.g. J. M. Creed, The Gospel according to St Luke [London: Macmillan, 1950] 203; C. F. Evans, St Luke [London: SCM, 1990] 595; Martin M. Culy, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Joshua J. Stigal, Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Baylor University, 2010] 517: François Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9.51-19.27 [Philadelphia: Fortress, 2013] 446). I cannot understand why the problem thus clearly raised by the lexicons is thus ignored.